The Casino Dilemma for Springfield

It’s certainly not surprising that Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno has decided to negotiate a final host-community agreement with both MGM and Penn National Gaming, the two companies vying to place a casino in Springfield (see related stories, pages 17 and 23).

After all, there are still many details to be hammered out on both proposals, and, as we’ve said on several occasions, it behooves the city to keep this competition going as long as it possibly can. Doing so will create better proposals and inevitably create more benefits for the city, its business community, and area nonprofits.

So while this particular decision was a no-brainer in most respects, the next one is exponentially more difficult. It comes down to whether one or both proposals will go before the voters in the city and, eventually, to the Mass. Gaming Commission. (While it’s possible that neither proposal will advance beyond this point, we consider that highly unlikely given the many identified benefits to having a casino in the city.)

This is a difficult decision because there are many factors that go into it, but two real considerations. The first is that Springfield officials, and especially Mayor Domenic Sarno, do not necessarily want the city’s voters or the Gaming Commission deciding where a Springfield casino is going to go — they want to make that decision themselves based on a number of factors, but essentially their objective and subjective determination of which project works best for the city. Once matters go the Gaming Commission, the city has no control.

The second major consideration is that the city is in the contest for a Western Mass. casino license for one reason — to win it. And there are questions about whether Springfield will stand a better chance of doing that if it has one proposal being considered by the Gaming Commission or two.

Indeed, while a simple mathematical analysis would conclude that, if the city has two of the four casino proposals under consideration (the others being in Palmer and West Springfield), it has a 50% chance of winning the license, and only a 33% chance if it has only one proposal, that may not be the case. Gaming Commission members may become split on the Springfield proposals (as many in the city already are), thus theoretically allowing a rival plan to slip in with a majority of the votes.

So what is Springfield to do? Sending both proposals to the voters and then the Gaming Commission would be fair, and would certainly leave fewer questions about whether politics might be involved. But is there room for ‘fair’ in this ultra-high-stakes competition?

It is probably still too early in the process to even determine if both plans are worthy of going before the commission (although the Boston Globe has already endorsed MGM’s plan as the best for Springfield from an economic-development standpoint), but we would advise the city to let the voters and the Gaming Commission have a say on both plans.

Yes, the city stands a chance of looking divided, or not unified on one plan, but that is, in fact, the reality of the moment. This city is not unified on one plan, and it’s not going to become unified — there is simply too much at stake for the supporters of both proposals for that to happen.

And if the city isn’t going to become unified, it shouldn’t make any pretension that it is, even when the purpose for doing so would be to better its odds of winning the $800 million lottery.

For the next several months, there will be a heated debate about whether Springfield is better off with one casino proposal or two. There is no quick or easy answer to that question, but how it’s answered will be a critical matter for this city moving forward.

And it must be answered correctly.

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